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‘Sistine Chapel of the UK’ vividly restored by Hugh Broughton Architects

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The Painted Hall at Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College has reopened after a two-year £8.5 million conservation project

Often referred to as the ‘Sistine Chapel of the UK’, the Painted Hall, designed by Christopher Wren and completed with a decorative scheme by James Thornhill, has reopened after an £8.5 million conservation project supported by a £3.1 million grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The project, led by Hugh Broughton Architects with conservation advice from the college’s surveyor of the fabric, Martin Ashley Architects, also sees the reopening and restoration of the King William Undercroft, situated below the Painted Hall, which now houses a new café, shop and interpretation gallery, The Sackler Gallery. 

Hba ornc jamesbrittain 016a

Hba ornc jamesbrittain 016a

The Painted Hall was originally designed as the ceremonial dining room for what was then the new Royal Hospital for Seaman. After the building was completed in 1705, the huge decorative scheme was started by Thornhill in 1707 and took 19 years to complete. The paintings celebrating England’s naval power and mercantile prosperity as well as its newly installed protestant monarchy with William III and Mary II, Anne and George I, who appear among the cast of hundreds of figures in the paintings.

The project involved cleaning and conserving the paintings; removing large areas of ‘blanching’ or whitening that covered the surface and obscured the detail, restoring their vivid colour, which is now also illuminated by a new LED system. The architect has introduced a range of measures, such as draughtproofing, solar shading and a specially controlled conservation heating system, to stabilise the hall’s environment and ensure the long-term preservation of the paintings. Contributing to this also is a new bronze-framed glazed screen at the visitor entrance into the King William Undercroft. 

The restoration was one of the largest open-access conservation projects in Europe, with an accessible observation deck giving 80,000 visitors the opportunity to observe the conservators at work.

Hba ornc jamesbrittain 040

Hba ornc jamesbrittain 040

Architect’s view

The Grade I-listed Painted Hall in the Old Royal Naval College is part of the great assembly of buildings designed for Greenwich Hospital by Christopher Wren in 1696 with significant parts executed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh. The hall, decorated by Sir James Thornhill, comprises one of the most important Baroque painted interiors in Europe. Although the paintings were conserved in the 1950s, bright sunlight and fluctuations in temperature and humidity had caused damage.

The project, part-funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, delivers innovative measures to stabilise the environment in the Painted Hall, including a new entrance off College Way leading into the vaulted King William Undercroft, fully revealed for the first time in 100 years. This provides a new welcome area, shop and café supported by refurbished kitchens. The revitalised space is characterised by high-quality craftsmanship. It includes a stone floor, extended leather banquettes, bespoke joinery and a refined bronze, framed glazed screen, which provides a buffer to reduce environmental impact in the Painted Hall. The Sackler Gallery beyond provides an interpretation space and includes the exposed remains of the palace built by Henry VII, uncovered during the project and now displayed behind an oval glass and bronze balustrade.

Within the Painted Hall, 3,700m² of painted surfaces have been painstakingly conserved and the internal environment stabilised. Environmental measures, including draughtproofing, solar shading and specially controlled conservation heating system, have been designed using cutting-edge monitoring and modelling processes to optimise the environment for protection of the paintings in perpetuity, whilst maximising visitor comfort and enjoyment of the remarkable sequence of paintings. Following an enabling phase, which improved means of escape and created inclusive access to the hall, the project has allowed the removal of clutter, concealment of visible services, and installation of discreet lighting and new seating.

Hugh Broughton Architects, who worked closely with the college’s surveyor of the fabric, Martin Ashley Architects

Paintedhall phplan

Paintedhall phplan

Project data

Start on site September 2016
Completion March 2019
Gross internal floor area 2,100m²
Form of contract or procurement route Traditional JCT Intermediate Building Contract with Contractor’s Design 2011
Construction cost £3.5 million
Construction cost per m2 £1,667
Architect Hugh Broughton Architects
Surveyor of the fabric Martin Ashley Architects
Client Old Royal Naval College
Structural engineer SFK Consulting
M&E consultant QODA
Quantity surveyor Huntley Cartwright
Environmental consultant Tobit Curteis Associates
Lightning designer Sutton Vane Associates
Interpretation designer Simon Leach Design 
Project manager Glevum Consulting
CDM co-ordinator PFB Construction Management Services
Approved building inspector Royal Borough of Greenwich Building Control 
Main contractor Coniston
CAD software used Vectorworks

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